Sunday, April 04, 2004

Deuteronomy 32:36-39 - “Where is Joe?”

Palm Sunday (Confirmation Day) (Year C- LCMS Revised Readings)
Saturday, April 3, and Sunday, April 4, 2004

(entering from the rear of the sanctuary with rock in hands)
All praise to Joe! Joe, the Great Rock! Joe, our wonderful god! All honor and praise to Joe! Way to go, Joe! We will follow Joe. We will worship Joe. He will always help us. Rise, stand up in the presence of Joe! Come on, how can you not give honor and respect to Joe the Rock, Joe the god?

(if some stand up) OK, sorry, you failed our little test. The Confirmands helped me put together this test to see if you’d break your own Confirmation pledge and worship this rock that we call Joe. So if you stood, I’m sorry, but you will have to come see me after church and go through confirmation study with me again.

(in pulpit) OK, not really, because it’s not really fair for me to come in here as your pastor and trick you into worshipping a false god. Actually, though, in working with this year’s Confirmation class on preparing this sermon, that’s what we want you to know from the Old Testament reading today: you don’t need any false gods, because you can trust that God, the true God, is always there for us.

That’s what the students have been learning for three years in our intensive program we call the DJs, the Disciples of Jesus. These students have been learning that there is no other god besides God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They’ve been learning how anything else that we trust in more than God Himself will let us down. So when we went away on our DJ2 Retreat a few weeks ago, they decided they wanted today’s sermon to be about Deuteronomy 32, because they want you to know and remember what they pledge today: they trust in God above all other things.

Some of the students looked at this passage and thought about an infomercial. The infomercial is selling a false god, maybe a false god like Joe. This god will give you refuge, protect you from life’s troubles. This god will eat and drink your sacrifices, and that will make you look good in this god’s eyes. This god will rise up and help you. This god will be your shelter in the storm.

But then when you call the toll-free number on the screen, when you give them your credit card number, and when this god gets delivered to your house, it turns out to just be a rock, a rock that doesn’t do anything, a rock that you could easily smash. This god named Joe that sounded so good on TV turns out to be nothing. That’s what it’s like getting tricked into believing in a false god—it sounds good, but it turns out to be nothing but a lie.

But now in Deuteronomy, God reminds us that with Him, these things are true. With Him, we have do a refuge; He will rise up and help us; He will give us shelter and protection from life and death. With Him, it isn’t about our sacrifices; He gave His Son, Jesus Christ, to be sacrificed for us, to die in our place, one sacrifice to pay for all of our sins. With the true God, we have a lifetime guarantee.

On our retreat, we were looking through magazines for pictures and words that made some connection to this Bible reading from Deuteronomy. You can see many of them on a bulletin board in the lobby. Someone found a line from an ad that says, “Lifetime guarantee? What do you think this is, GM Goodwrench Service Plus?”

Mr. Goodwrench says that his work is guaranteed for the life of your car. Well, when I say that God gives you a lifetime guarantee, it is much more than Mr. Goodwrench’s guarantee. This is a lifetime guarantee to watch over you all the days of your life. This is a guarantee to give you an eternal lifetime, an everlasting life after death. This is the kind of guarantee that a false god can’t give you.

But the students also looked at this passage, in the questions that God asks, and it seems to be about people who have left their faith, have started to follow other gods, to trust in other things, and now, when there’s troubles, now, they’re wondering where the help is. The god arrived in the mail, but now that you want to use the god, Joe’s not doing much. Where is Joe? Where is Joe when you need him? Why isn’t he helping? Why isn’t Joe speak comforting words? Why doesn’t Joe forgive? Where is Joe?

And then when you have forgotten about the true God, when you have started to trust in an idol like this rock, or trust in another person as the biggest source of help, or trust in things, your money and possessions, or trust in something to make yourself feel better—food or alcohol or drugs, then when you have followed your false gods but find yourself struggling in your life, you begin to ask, (play Pink Floyd clip - “Is there anybody out there?” – starts at 0:27)

Is there anybody out there? Where is Joe? Where is this god right now? Where is the hope I need? Can anyone help me? (clip) Can anyone help me when a loved one is dying, when I am struggling at school, when my friends get mad at me, when my family is fighting? Is there anybody out there to help me? (clip) Where is Joe? Where are all of the things I trusted in? (pause music)

At that moment, God comes again in these words from Deuteronomy, saying, “See now that I myself am He! There is no god besides me.” God is saying that whatever help we were looking for, whatever we thought we needed and could get from someone else, whatever promises Joe gave us, those are the things that only He can give us. You were looking for refuge and shelter; God Himself is your protection. You were looking for someone to forgive you and accept you; God Himself takes you as you are.

So is there anybody out there? Yes, God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God is here and out there; God walks with us each day. Trust in God to always be there for you. The false gods will fail you.

But what about those days when it really seems like even the true God isn’t there? The students and I talked about how their Confirmation Day is April 4, the day when Martin Luther King, Jr., was shot and killed. (This, of course, gave me one more chance at making sure the students knew the difference between Martin Luther King, Jr., the civil rights leader in the 1960s, and Martin Luther, the theologian from the 1500s for which our denomination is named). More importantly, though, we talked about how in 1968, King’s assassination left people really without hope about the Civil Rights Movement. King had been the leader, the one who was causing change, the one who was helping the country to begin granting equal rights to blacks, and now this great man had been shot and killed. “Is there anybody out there?” people must have wondered.

So too, the students and I talked about the difficulties and tragedies in their lives. The times when they find themselves doubting whether God is with them. The times they find themselves putting trust in a false belief or false god. When any of us hit those dark days, when the tears flow and when the world just seems like a burden, the days when anger flares, when doors slam, when there is shouting and name-calling and threats of violence. (start clip again 1:01) When we face pain or death. When we are sad or depressed. When we can’t see direction, when there’s little hope, (clip) when every door seems to be closed in our face. Then we too ask, “Is there anybody out there?”

But today the students and I also want you to hear the God’s Word: “The Lord will have compassion on His servants when He sees that their strength is gone.” When you are sapped of your strength, physically, emotionally, or mentally, or perhaps all three, when your strength is gone, God promises to have compassion on you. He stands with you in those times. He guards you, lifts you up, walks with you, gives you hope—even if that hope is somewhere deep inside your heart. Even when it appears that God is missing, that He has withdrawn from your life, do not doubt His ability to save and protect.

When it appears that God is missing, it is about our experience in this broken world, our experience in a world where we cannot see clearly. However, God remains the great and powerful One, the One who comes to grant healing and life, the One who brings forgiveness and salvation.

So what are the idols in your life? (flip over poster of Justin) Is Justin from American Idol your idol? Because I’m afraid that even Justin, a finalist from American Idol, can’t live up to the challenge from God: “Let him rise up to help you! Let him give you shelter!” I’m not sure that Justin can do that for all of us.

What are your idols? Who do you trust above all things? Are there people or things or beliefs that might become more important than God Himself? One example might be a belief that you hold so dear that it affects the way you read God’s Word. For instance, I had a friend who felt that the most important thing in life was to be happy. It sounded wonderful, especially considering that her mom wanted that for her, and her mom’s mom believed that too. This was a family belief, a family motto, the goal of life is to be happy.

But then that ran into trouble when I talked to my friend about what God said about sin and judgment, about Jesus saying that the only way to the Father is through Him. When we talked about living the Christian life, giving up what we wanted in order to serve God, then she started to say that it didn’t match what she believed. She believed that everyone should be happy, and talking about sin, talking about Jesus being the only way, seemed to be ways to get people unhappy or mad. She didn’t think that was how it should go.

My friend’s false belief was more important than what God actually teaches. Yet, my friend’s false belief is just like Joe; it will let her down. When times are difficult, when it is hard to see hope, then it is also hard to believe that you’ll be happy again. If all of your hope for life rests on being happy, then in those difficult times, you will lose hope. You’ll say, “Where is Joe? Is there anybody out there? Where is my happiness? Why won’t my happiness come back and help me?”

But again, the students and I want you to realize when you have a false belief, a false god, because we want you to trust the true God will always be there for you. Your happiness may be gone, but we have an eternal hope in Jesus Christ that goes beyond our happiness. God rise up and helps you. God gives you shelter. God’s hope lies in your heart, built on Jesus Christ, built on the forgiveness of sins, and that hope is protected against happiness failures, power failures, health failures, life failures. Your hope is surge protected in God, because all of the troubles and evil and clouds of this life cannot destroy the hope that comes through Jesus Christ.

So put down your rocks; stop worshipping Joe. Put away your false beliefs. Turn to the true God. The Confirmation students stand up today to say that they are committed to the true God, saying what was said at their baptisms, saying what we pray they will say all of their lives. Today, though, let us also renew that pledge, standing here before God saying that we trust in Him above all things. For He is trustworthy, worthy of our trust, lives up to our trust, and He will give us hope above all the trouble of this world.